Curators: Gregor J.M. Weber, Head of Fine and Decorative Arts, Rijksmuseum and Pieter Roelofs, Head of Paintings and Sculpture, Rijksmuseum
The Rijksmuseum, the national museum of the Netherlands, dedicate a retrospective exhibition to the 17th-century master Johannes Vermeer for the first time in its history. With loans from all over the world, this promises to be the largest Vermeer exhibition ever staged. In the lead-up to the exhibition, a team of leading curators, conservators and scientists have worked together closely to conduct new research into Vermeer’s paintings using the latest available technology. The insights gained shed new light on Vermeer’s life and work, the artistic choices and motivations for his compositions, as well as the creative process behind his paintings.
So little is known about the artist, that he has come to be known as ‘the Sphinx of Delft’. His known body of work is also relatively small, at just 37 paintings. This exhibition brings us closer to Vermeer by presenting 28 of these works together for the first time and placing them in the context of new insights gained from all the research that has been conducted into his work and life.
At least 28 paintings out of Vermeer’s very small oeuvre will be loaned from museums and collections from Europe, the United States and Japan. In an extraordinary gesture the Frick Collection will lend all three of its Vermeer masterpieces to the exhibition: The Girl Interrupted at Her Music, Officer and Laughing Girl, and Mistress and Maid. The Rijksmuseum exhibition will be the first time that all three paintings are shown together outside of New York since they were acquired more than a century ago. Two paintings have undergone extensive examination at the Rijksmuseum prior to the exhibition.
Additional highlights include The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis, The Hague), The Geographer (Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main), Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), Woman Holding a Balance (The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), The Glass of Wine (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), Young Woman with a Lute (Metropolitan Museum, NYC) and The Lacemaker (Louvre, Paris). Works never before shown to the public in the Netherlands will include the newly restored Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. The Rijksmuseum itself owns four masterpieces by Vermeer: The Milkmaid, The Little Street, Woman Reading a Letter and The Love Letter.
The latest research has unearthed new sources that shed light on the painter and his personal circumstances. As a result, we know more about his social position, his living environment and his contacts with artists and fellow citizens. Modern scanning techniques have accelerated research into Vermeer over the past decades. A team of curators, conservators and scientists from the Rijksmuseum have been collaborating closely with colleagues from the Mauritshuis and the University of Antwerp to conduct new research into Vermeer’s paintings. The techniques used for this investigation include the advanced Macro-XRF and RIS scanning technologies.
Recent research into Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid have brought to light two objects on the artist’s world-famous canvas: a jug holder and a fire basket. The artist himself later painted over the objects. The most recent scans also uncovered what is clearly an underpainting. Utilising similar technology, underpainting has also been noted in additional paintings such as Woman holding a balance from the National Gallery in Washington. The conventional understanding that Vermeer painted slowly and with great thought must therefore be revised. His end results may appear introverted and contemplative, but his working method is virtuosic and rigorous.
NEW RESEARCH INTO “THE MILKMAID”
These state-of-the-art technologies have revealed what is clearly an underpainting on The Milkmaid. This discovery sheds entirely new light on Vermeer’s methods. The general assumption was that the artist produced his small oeuvre very slowly, and always worked with extreme precision. This view is now being revised. A hastily applied thick line of black paint can be seen beneath the milkmaid’s left arm. This sketch shows clearly that Vermeer first quickly painted the scene in light and dark tones before developing the detail.
A similar preliminary sketch in black paint can be seen on the wall behind the young woman’s head. By comparing the results produced using the latest research techniques, it has now become clear that Vermeer used black paint to sketch a jug holder and several jugs, but didn’t develop them any further. The jug holder, a plank of wood with nobs attached, was used in 17th-century kitchens for hanging up multiple ceramic jugs by the handle. A pantry in Vermeer’s own home contained a similar item, and a miniature version of just such a jug holder can be found elsewhere in the Rijksmuseum, in Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house (c. 1690).
The artist’s own fire basket
The recent research has yielded images in significantly higher detail than before. This has enabled scientists to identify the previously discovered basket, at the lower right of the painting, as a so-called ‘fire basket’. Woven from willow stems, or withies, this type of basket was a standard household item for young families. A fire bowl containing glowing coals was placed in the basket to keep new-borns warm and to dry nappies. Seventeenth-century archival material including Vermeer’s own estate inventory reveals that just such an item stood in his house, home to his family of numerous children. In the painting, Vermeer later covered over the fire basket with the foot stove, Delftware tiles, and the floor.
NEW VERMEER BIOGRAPHY
A new biography published by Rijksmuseum reveals for the first time the full influence the Jesuit order of the Catholic church exerted on Johannes Vermeer who had been raised a Protestant. Johannes Vermeer. Faith, Light, and Reflection is written by Gregor J.M. Weber, Head of the Department of Fine Arts at the Rijksmuseum and one of the curators of the upcoming exhibition.
The biography’s new findings overturn conventional understanding of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) and his work:
Vermeer and the camera obscura
Vermeer quite possibly first came into contact with the Jesuits in connection with the camera obscura. Weber discovered a drawing by the priest of the next door church, Isaac van der Mye, who was also a trained artist, that clearly reflects the characteristics of a camera obscura. Lighting effects which are particular to the camera can also be found in Vermeer’s paintings, leaving little room for doubt that the artist drew inspiration from the device. Our human eye automatically focuses on whatever we are looking at, but the image produced by a camera has just a single focus, leaving other areas blurred. This effect is precisely what Vermeer achieves in The Lacemaker (c. 1666-68, Louvre Museum, Paris), in which all objects in the foreground are blurred. Light and optics were a major focus of Jesuit devotional literature: the order regarded the camera obscura as a tool for the observation of God’s divine light. There is even a sermon that explores in detail the artistic and moral aspects of the camera obscura.
The Jesuits next door
The Vermeer family’s home stood on Oude Langendijk in the Papenhoek neighbourhood of Delft. All 15 children – four of whom died young – were raised Catholic. The baptismal names of 10 children were known. They include Franciscus and Ignatius – the latter having been named after the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola. The building next door to their home was a Jesuit mission with a hidden church large enough for 700 faithful, as well as a girl’s school where Vermeer’s daughters were baptised and educated. We can safely assume that Vermeer and his family visited the mission frequently.
Catholic domestic life
The property inventory drawn up after Vermeer’s death reveals that he aspired to lead a Catholic domestic lifestyle. On the wall of one room at his home – which he shared with his Catholic wife, mother-in-law, and large brood of children – hung a large painting depicting the crucifixion of Christ, alongside another of Saint Veronica with the cloth she used to wipe the sweat and blood from the face of Jesus. Devotional art of this kind is typical of a Catholic prayer room. The setting for Vermeer’s Allegory of the Catholic Faith is a domestic room with a large painting of the crucifixion on the wall. Hanging from the ceiling is a reflective glass sphere, a Jesuit symbol for faith. Vermeer was clearly thoroughly acquainted with Jesuit devotional literature.
Besides Allegory of the Catholic Faith, various paintings by Vermeer incorporated Jesuit themes in everyday scenes. Hanging on the rear wall in Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1662-64 National Gallery of Art, Washington), for example is a version of the Last Judgement, depicting the judgement of the souls of everyone who has ever lived. This approach to combining the mundane and divine spheres is typical of Jesuit spiritual literature.
The exhibition is a collaboration between the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis.
The Rijksmuseum will extend the exhibition Vermeer opening hours to 10PM on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings for the duration of the exhibition from 10 February to 4 June 2023.